Author Archives: Bill Meehan

Bill Meehan
Bill Meehan, P.E., heads the worldwide utility industry solutions practice for Esri. Author of Enhancing Electric Utility Performance with GIS, Modeling Electric Distribution Performance with GIS, Empowering Electric and Gas Utilities, Power System Analysis by Digital Computer, and numerous papers and articles, Bill has lectured extensively and taught courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts. Bill is a registered professional engineer. Follow Bill on Twitter.

Recent Posts

Today’s GIS Forecast: Partly Cloudy

Firewalls protect web-based GIS from the dangers of the cloud

When I was interning at a power company, the utility industry had just adopted a revolutionary technology: SCADA. Today, SCADA is so common most people don’t even bother to spell out the acronym (supervisory control and data acquisition system). But back then, SCADA was controversial. It eliminated the need for substation operators.

Utilities staffed operators who could act immediately in an emergency. They closed breakers, put out fires, and called for help. They checked fluid levels and did maintenance, cleaning, and inspections. They made the rounds, took the readings, spoke to the dispatchers, and made sure everything ran smoothly. Continue reading

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What about the Big Problem?

Don’t think you’re solving it. Know you are.

For decades, utilities have used some form of digital mapping system. It could be a CAD system, an automated mapping/facilities management (AM/FM) system, or a full-featured GIS. Yet the vast majority of utilities use the GIS mainly as a basis for network documentation. Sure, it often is the basis for asset management, outage management, and network design. That’s good. Utilities have come a long way from the old paper maps and awkward processes of keeping records up to date. Yet, many don’t see their GIS as a true mapping or location platform. They often don’t see it as one that extends into nearly every corner of the company.

Many senior executives still view GIS as just a component, albeit a vital component, of operations groups instead of a strategic tool to help run the business. Executives do not necessarily see the GIS as a strong tool in helping solve their big problems.  Continue reading

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The Deadly Backlog: A Hole in the Safety Net

Interactive Maps Communicate Real-time Information to Plug the Holes

We have all heard the term safety net. It’s a system, a policy, a program, or device used to protect its owners just in case something bad happens. For example, people often refer to social security as a safety net for older people who don’t have a pension. The term comes to us from the circus, where large, roped nets are set up below trapeze artists. Without the nets, sweaty palms or small distractions could mean instant death. But with the net, they fall harmlessly and land with only a fright. However, most trapeze artists never want to fall. First of all, falling is a sign of failure. Second, when the term originated, the circus actors didn’t trust the integrity of the net, as circuses had and have notoriously bad maintenance. Safety nets have flaws. Trapeze artists know that. Some nets even have holes. Continue reading

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Measure the Full Value of Your GIS Investment

Beyond ROI, Key Performance Indices and GIS Close Performance Gaps

[Note:  This is the third post in our new series about Managing GIS.]

A common question we get from our utility customers is, “What is the return on investment (ROI) for GIS?” The reason is most utilities need to justify the cost of building, upgrading, or enhancing their GIS (e.g., investing in a tablet-based damage-assessment app) or doing the same with their GIS data. That justification takes the form of a financial study that answers these questions: What is the payback period of GIS? What is its impact on balance and income sheets? What is the cash flow for the project?

Utility financial people call these hard-dollar savings. Hard-dollar savings are a common measuring stick by which to judge the merits of an investment. Continue reading

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Mobile GIS? Never Heard Of It!

Many Workflows are Best Served with Targeted Apps

I get this said to me all the time:  “We have this big GIS in the office. We use it all the time to make maps and export data into our outage systems or gas leak management system. It’s great! Can we put it into the field for the mobile workers?”

People want mobile GIS.  But I respond like a psychiatrist when they ask for it: Instead of giving them a straight answer, I ask them a question: “To do what?”

Their answers span a big gamut. They range from, “It’s easier to get maps on a mobile device than to carry around paper maps,” to…

Continue reading

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From NIMBY to NOPE: Overcoming the Location Dilemma

There’s an old saying: Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.

Everyone wants low cost, environmentally friendly energy. But people don’t want to look at transmission towers, pumping stations, power plants, substations, and wind farms. More than that, they don’t want any of these things located anywhere near them. We used to call this situation NIMBY or Not In My Backyard. Today we have gone from NIMBY to NOPE (Not On Planet Earth).

Transportation organizations have the same problem as utility companies. Everyone complains about traffic jams, lack of public transportation, not enough flights, lack of access to ports, and emissions from freight trains. Yet when a project comes along to provide relief, there is an outcry of opposition.

Continue reading

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Ancient Rituals and Modern Technology

The electric and gas utility business is complex. Some say the electric grid is the most sophisticated technology in the world. Natural gas networks are not far behind. Diving deep in to the business, there is probably one of nearly every kind of technological wonder at play. Control systems, artificial intelligence, Lidar, sensor networks, augmented reality, and of course GIS. Utilities, to some extent like the space industry, drive innovation of technology. Yet overlaid with all this sparkling technology are some old patterns of behavior.

Every industry strives to improve. Utilities can improve by getting rid of old habits.

Two old behaviors linger: working in silos, and heavy reliance on institutional knowledge. Continue reading

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Electric Utilities Need Answers

GIS Responds to the Tough Questions

Electric utilities face a new world–one in which the infrastructure is aging along with the workers. The price of everything keeps going up. Customers want better and faster service, but some of them cannot pay their bills. Natural disasters seem to get nastier each year. Governments continue to dole out more and more regulations. The community wants better service, lower emissions, and fewer mishaps. It’s a political nightmare to raise rates. Plus, the new smart grid devices are smothering utility operators with data.

In short: utilities cannot continue to operate as they have been. Utilities need a better way to do business. GIS can help. Continue reading

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Sharing Information to Support Smart Grid

I recently co-presented a session on GIS and the Smart Grid to a group of about 150 folks from the gas and electric utilities and the telecommunications businesses. We thought it might be interesting to have the groups come together since as more and more utilities implement Smart Grid (electric and gas), there will become greater interdependencies on one another. We further thought that this session would be a great opportunity for each company to tell us their current practices on sharing data, problems and issues. The premise was, of course, that since ArcGIS is a platform which facilitates sharing of information, that both groups could give us feedback on how best to facilitate collaboration. Much to our surprise, the groups do not have much collaboration at all. In fact, they hadn’t really considered it very seriously. When I probed them further, I asked, well how do you share information with each other? One utility guy, perhaps, half-jokingly said that he bought his friend from the phone company a beer and that’s when they shared information.

The biggest take away from this session was this: the discussion on this topic hasn’t really started. It should. Continue reading

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What’s the Cost of a Power Failure?

Measuring the impact on customers

This year, New England had one of its worst late season storms in recent history. Heavy snow brought down trees, which in turn, brought down many power lines. Some people were out of power for more than a week. In March, a fire in a substation shut off power to the historic Back Bay section of Boston for several days. The blackout left hotels, office buildings, and subway stations dark and shuttered some of the most exclusive shops in the city. Continue reading

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